Eric, a beefy Long Islander with legs like a running back’s and platinum blond hair that enhances his Jersey Shore tan, locked up with his opponent, John. It was the second fight of the night at the Underground Combat League, one of the busiest promotions putting on mixed martial arts fights in New York, where the sport is illegal.
A crowd of around 100 people were crowded into a well-lit basement gym in Manhattan (the organizers asked us not to disclose its name for legal reasons), pushed up against a chain-link cage watching the action. Wrestling mats covered the floor and heavy bags hung from the ceiling. A burly bouncer stood by the front door to make sure no one arrived uninvited.
The two fighters pressed each other against the chain-link cage, exchanging knee strikes to the abdomen. With a surge, Eric threw his opponent to the ground, mounted him, perched on his chest and began raining down blows.
“Get out of there,” screamed the opposing corner. John bucked, trying to stand up. Eric snatched his wrist and fell backward in an arm lock. The crowd roared, hoping for a finish to the bout. The arm bent up at the elbow at a grotesque angle, but John didn’t submit. He rolled out, ended up on Eric’s back and began choking him. In a flash Eric reversed him again, taking top position with 20 seconds left in the round.
“Drop bombs!” yelled Eric’s corner. An elbow to the forehead sprayed blood, leaving a crimson splotch on Eric’s bleached hair. The five-minute round ended, but the referee didn’t hear the promoter shouting “Time!” over the screams of the excited crowd. The fighters exchanged blows for another few seconds before the match was finally stopped. The woman sitting beside us groaned. “That was too much for me.”
After the match, The Observer chewed on some beef jerky that had been left on a snack table by Jim Genia, who was having his book release party alongside the day’s bouts and had invited us along. His book, Raw Combat, published by Citadel, tells the story of New York’s underground fight scene. “This stuff happens in New York, and it will continue to happen here,” Mr. Genia said. He pointed out that when the sport was legalized in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the underground circuits there all but evaporated.
Mr. Genia’s editor, Richard Ember, was also in attendance. The event was “interesting,” he said. “Although I don’t think I would like another man sitting on my face, no matter what the situation,” he added, adjusting his glasses. “And some of those punches, they looked like they were aimed at the vital organs …”
Mr. Genia’s prediction for the sport’s legalization in New York may be a little optimistic. M.M.A. has some vehement opponents in the state, including State Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who has compared the sport variously to dog fighting and prostitution. “It really is a glorification of brutality and violence,” he told a panel of fighters recently. “Many people believe that violence in the media, or any portrayal of violence, or violence itself as I think happens in mixed martial arts, in fact, makes people immune to violence and in fact promotes violence.”
To some extent, mixed martial arts has been its own worst enemy. In the early days, promoters enthusiastically branded the sport as a savage, no-holds-barred spectacle of pure violence and emphasizing the gorier aspects. Senator John McCain led the crusade against M.M.A. in the late ’90s, dubbing it “human cockfighting,” after which 36 states banned the sport outright.
For a time, it seemed promoters were down for the count, but they pulled a slick reversal. Rather than continue promoting the sport as the most violent entertainment available, they began speaking instead about its similarity to other athletic events and working to establish a set of guidelines. In 2000, New Jersey was the first state to introduce unified rules, which prohibited things like groin strikes, hair pulling and eye gouging. Since then, the sport has been legalized in 45 states. Of the hold-outs (Alaska, Wyoming, New York, Connecticut and Vermont), New York is the largest market by far, and therefore the biggest prize.